Long Road Home

Southern Idaho. Endless alkali desert like bands of old paint dug out of the garage and scraped on the land with a putty knife. Hours in the car listening to a single radio station from Pocatello. Crop prices. Country and southern rock. High school football. 

Finally, the big red shoulders of the Teton mountains rise up out of a ruff of quaking aspen. They are the guardians at the gates of my sense of what home is. Guardians of stories, of love, adventure and of loss. I’m going to lay my hands on this place one last time while my father is still alive. 

***

Dad was the chaplain at the VA hospital in Sheridan, Wyoming. He also did circuit preaching and would drive long distances to hold services in Shell, Ten Sleep, Story and other tiny towns in northern Wyoming. 

Once he drove out to Story to conduct a funeral for a rancher who had died in an accident. Before the service, the man’s wife came up to him carrying a pair of cowboy boots and asked him if she could put them on her dead husband.  When my father asked her why, she said where he is going, he will need them. The look in her eye told him that she wasn’t looking for a laugh or sympathy, just some neighborly assistance.  The request was unadorned — like asking to cash a check at the bank. 

I remember the Northern lights glowing over the Bighorn mountains like a great phosphorescent sea creature. And tight rows of veterans in gray hospital uniforms — men with what was then called shell shock — rolling reel mowers across the parade ground at Fort Sheridan. 

***

The funeral home where they turned my father’s body back into dust is now a Portland brew pub. I had a beer there on his birthday. Listening to the whirr of traffic outside, I remembered his wry smile — he would have enjoyed the irony. Dad didn’t drink. Driving home, the tire slap on the pavement reminded me of the hundred thousand miles we traveled in his 1957 Volkswagen bus. Along roads where all of our stories —  stories that hold us all together and remind us of who we are, collect and scatter like cottonwood seeds.

Kids Write Poetry

One day recently my friends Steve and Cathy asked me if I would teach their grandsons, ages nine and eleven, some basics about writing poetry. They were being homeschooled by their mom during the Covid-19 epidemic — so I created some lessons. I sent them out in the morning and we met over Zoom at the end of the day to discuss the lesson and read people’s poems out loud. It went so well, I thought I would make the lessons available to others as a workbook. Kids Write Poetry – A Workbook for Young Poets is my way of serving the community during a difficult time.

Here is the first lesson as an example:

Lesson 1:

Poems are built from pieces: words and lines are the two basic building blocks. The goal of the first exercise is to make one line poems that tell a story. A story can be suggestive and not necessarily have a beginning, middle and end. One-line poems can sketch an idea. Sometimes the sketch-style poems are the most interesting ones. Here are some examples of one-line poems from one of the masters, the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos:

      I erase the shadow completely with this gold pencil. 

      The night always behind my pages. That’s why my letters shine so brightly.

      Your clothes, thrown on the chair, still smell of the sea.

      To speak constantly about wrong things is like being wrong. 

Notice how his lines do not always make sense in the conventional way. Poems are interesting when they put things together in new ways. Don’t worry about it making sense or not. Your brain will always make its own sense of things anyway. We are meaning making creatures. The best poems can often be read or interpreted in multiple ways. Also notice how his lines are built from interesting physical objects combined with actions that are unexpected. You don’t expect, when reading about clothes on a chair to have them smell like the sea! How cool is that! 

First assignment: write ten one line poems in the style of Yannis Ritsos. You can use physical objects from your own life as a starting place, or just start from imagination, which is as real as anything in the so-called real world anyway. Don’t worry about making sense!!  Write a few where they seem to make very little sense, even if they are just a list of things. Also, make it fun. You write for your own enjoyment and for strangers. 

So for example, I am looking at my very messy desk right now. Here are some things I see and some other things they bring to mind:

      Two used containers of ant bait. A family portrait. 

     Piles of stuff everywhere. I wish I could staple my life back together.

Good luck!

You can download it here: Kids Write Poetry – A Workbook for Young Poets. 

 

Tulips

A crèche of
red hooded
muscle berries
nodding,
unfolding like kings–
Gaspar and Balthasar,
flanked by Christmas
candles, mirror-doubled
and swelling
to show off
their black
speckled hearts
like the dots in
the red rolls of caps
in the pistols
we fired under
the porch of our
house in Wyoming.
Our ears rang
for hours and the
smell of smoke
stuck to our clothes.

Fathers and Sons

She took my hand
Placed in it a skipping stone

Taken in a swallow
It burns, this life

Makes a stigmata
Of needful things

Sows cheatgrass
In the deepest swale

Turns sons
Against fathers

As if driving elk
Before the wind

Presence of Absence

(After Herman Melville)

It appalls me in some dim and random way.
In nature it enhances beauty, as in pearls or gardenias.
In people, it offers power over others.
In monuments of death, it implies sympathy and light.
In brides, innocence and purity.
In the elderly, a benign benevolence.
To the old Iriquois, it meant the deep winter sacrifice of a sacred dog.
Roman Catholics see in it the Passion of our Lord.
In the vision of St. John, it meant shining robes for the redeemed.

Yet inside this color is a panic in the blood.
Remove some of the kinder associations and combine it
with a terrible object and it magnifies that terror
with a ghastly mildness and a pale dread.
To the shark, the polar bear, the squalls of the Southern ocean
it adds a supernatural and a nameless terror.

The tall pale man of the Eastern European forests
gives the wanderer as much inner darkness as the milk foamed sea
gives the sailor. A young colt in a sleepy Vermont valley
will stamp and snort at a shaken bear skin. Though the colt has
no memories of past violence, it carries an instinctive,
an inherent knowledge of the demonism of the world.

Mystic signs carry these ancestral hints, so to me they must
exist somewhere. Is there a dumb blankness of annihilation
in the distant stars? Or a colorless atheism from which we shrink?
Nature paints the world in a sexual riot of color.
While the paintbrush is colorless, look at its source
long enough and you will receive a blindness that removes
both the world’s beauty and the terror of seeing it.

Book Review: Republic Cafe by David Biespiel

My review of a new book-length poem by David Biespiel was just published in the May issue of Plume.

Republic Café is David Biespiel’s sixth book of poetry. It is arguably his finest work. Loosely based on Alain Resnais’ romantic drama film Hiroshima Mon Amour, this book-length poem borrows the movie’s main storyline and recasts it as a shape-shifting Noh play, presented in 54 numbered sections. The story follows two lovers over a 36-hour period as they meet and have an affair in the days following 9/11.

More…

Republic Café
David Biespiel
University of Washington Press
$19.95 hardcover
January 2019

Book Review: Soft Science by Franny Choi

I was prepared to hate it / well, hate is a strong word /
let’s just say give it wings and let it sail past the bridge
/ but it doesn’t suck / it doesn’t pretend to get on its knees
and make the rafters sing / it is a red owl on a bicycle with hungry eyes /

“Who isn’t bruised around the edges, peaches poured
into the truck bed, receipts faded to white?”

it sends out science mannikins to shout about being nervous in secret /
it collaborates with machines to make rain squalls / it argues for
a better kind of blindness / it warns others about dreaming in stairwells
and at crime scenes / it is a crime scene painted in butterscotch broth /

“The cop speaks and I call a plum into is his mouth
and it doesn’t shut him up.

The cop kneels in the grass below my friends, my friends
crowned with August and Salt. My marigold my wave.”

tendrils and tips and sprockets combine to give it firm plant awareness /
“cyborg means man made” I didn’t know / it is like new sounds added
to frost in the stubble by the road / in a Wyoming winter snow drifts
come and go like grainy herds of buffalo / this book is like those herds
mated with seigniorage — the profit made from the minting of coins /
ducats in the pillow / francs thrown into the Seine / everything costs
what you are willing to throw away / this book is completely free
in that sense / it is madly lyrical / and worth your time.

Note: this review is for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. Soft Science
is forthcoming from Alice James books.

Poems About Work

Work Literary Magazine has published two more of my poems about labor:
Hanford 1944
Logger

More Poems About Work

Work literary magazine has published three of my poems about work.
Tower Worker – West of Mt. Hood
Sex Worker in Shinjuku
Road Work

Grand Canal, Venice, Thomas Moran, 1899

Venice is burning!
    Come closer to me
Venice is writhing in light
    boats, flags, the dukes palace
    all under watery sun spray
    spectral and cloud real

Chopping Block Shoals, Kuniyoshi, 1850

sails tearing, stern lights going out
 waves like vermin
overflowing rails and decks
  Yoshibei leaps into the sea

Create Dangerously

“To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing. Hence the question is not to find out if this is or is not prejudicial to art. The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies (how many churches, what solitude!), the strange liberty of creation is possible.”

–Albert Camus, 1957

Facing In

The fish in the closet
are wandering

Diamonds have become used to
force feeding

No wonder the stadiums
are turning inside out

I wish to learn how to swallow
this morning blindness

Logger

Logger was published by Work Literary Magazine.

Late Winter

A late February snow has
the near world in its sequester

At Starbucks the barista imitates
a bird calling across the water

The Package

The Package was first published in print by Poetry Quarterly.

The bedspread
has animal dialogs
It shudders and sweats
spreading its fretwork
across the cordillera
The smooth places are made
into mussels and rock crabs
and the hard places are made
into deer and antelope
Leather, pine and sea salt
join with resin and marsh hawks
to make the world we see
From scuffles under the window
comes the light above the hemline
and the occupation of Paris
and Lascaux cave art and the sphinx
tongue as thick as a buffalo
Painted stick dancers
clothed in blood and teeth
and ocher and foam
brought us today, delivered
in a Fedex package:
a dish of blue eels
and ammonites
and slave songs
and mile-deep diamonds
and the lungs of kings

Storm Over Houston

Storm Over Houston was first published by Clementine Unbound.

A shadow props up the gutted barn
where we spent the night.
To be keen all the time–not to swerve,
ten minutes out of every hour,
is enough most days.

A man with boulders in his soul,
a dock trying to hold onto
it’s string of boat horses,
a bone-drenched woman
with praise for a God
who was as stealthy as a barn cat.

Out on the highway
no sound now,
as if someone
had picked them all up
from a skiff with a pruning hook
and put them in a sack.

The Last Circus

Note: Barnam and Bailey announced today that they are closing their circus after more than one hundred years of touring and performing

I am five years old
sitting in wiggly anticipation
under the circus bigtop
Barnum and Bailey
has come to Sheridan, Wyoming

The crowd is a hot smear
of Saturday afternoon faces
The room smells of animal dung
and buttered popcorn.

I have the surprisingly intimate feeling
of being let in on a secret —
there is a world where the rules
are suspended, where people fly
and elephants walk on their hind legs
where women wear spangled
skin-tight suits and swing on swing sets
the size of tall buildings

where people are sawn in half
and then reassembled
where the polar axis shifts
and time runs in a bright circle
with a man standing on its back with a whip!

Trump’s Inaugural Address Under Erasure

Today we became the rulers
The public, rusted-out
and scattered like tombstones
American carnage
This sad depletion our country
disappeared over the horizon

America first!

The ravages, stealing and destroying
will lead to great prosperity and strength
I will never, ever let you win
Radical Islamic Terrorism
the bedrock of our politics

Total allegiance
Open your heart to patriotism
Now arrives the empty hour of action
Our soldiers will bleed
the same red blood
and be ignored again

The Old and New Letters of William Persons

( Wm. Persons was the brother of my great grandmother. This poem includes excerpts from his letters home during the American Civil War. )

dear pa and ma i take my pen and bid you goodbye
tomorrow i leave this camp and regiment forever
and go aboard a gunboat for the Mississippi river
so don’t feel bad there is not as much danger
on a vessel as in the field
i have a nice new Enfield rifle
it is a great honor to join a Mann. o war
and i am determined to have a brush with the rebbles
the company cast lots to see who would go

dear ma, I cannot write what is on my heart
so I will write you in my head
I am sick with the grip and can barely stand
I don’t know how I will do aboard a gunboat
the regiment drills day and night
we are brave in outward appearance
but all lose weight and gain creases around the eyes
sleep comes dear when it comes
my socks are worn through as am I
I lost a tooth in a soldier’s fight
do you remember the Palmer’s oldest boy Grayson?
he and I are constant companions now, even more
though we must be careful

we left rikers island on the 28th of february
took a steamboat to Amboy and then by rail to Philadelphia
the train running like destruction
with heavy report of cannon when we arrived

the train shook so hard I almost broke my elbow
we quartered in an abandoned mill
with rats running over us all night
I have an open sore on my leg that won’t heal
I sometimes think I can hear you playing the spinnet at night
and hear the frogs out by the lake

we left Philadelphia for Baltimore
most of the inhabitants were nigers and wenches that i saw
we left at dusk and as the cars moved off we were stoned
one man spit on Lt. Van Dyke but took leg
when he drew his sword to smite him
Baltimore is a rotten city all that keeps them from rebellion
is two regiments in their midst and the guns of fort henry

Baltimore is full of scoundrels
a man who said he knew you and pa
said he could arrange a leave for me
if I would sign some papers
I was sore tempted but told him no
Grayson said he was a bounty hunter
with the home guard and was trying to make me run

we arrived in washington and are all laid in one room
thicker than hair on a cat
we lay one night on the ground in the snow
it was a tough time but its all over now

we were poisoned this week by rebble infiltrators
I was sick to perdition but made it through
Grayson and I were beaten
by men from another regiment
after an argument over a package from home
though that wasn’t the real reason
he is my only real friend here
but will stay with the regiment
when I go on the gunboat
I am bound up with fear
but determined not to let everyone down

we have had some splendid victorys this week.
the capture of Fort Henry, which was a snug fight,
the rebbles fought desperately and our men
had the worst of it, but they took it.

the country near the Mississippi is splendid
I watched a hawk catch a snake in a cornfield and I was near back home
our gunboat is the USS Mound City
she is covered with 2 1/2 inches of iron, the boys call her Pook’s turtle
she is a fine affair though she floats low at the stern
and her boiler sits up high and unarmored God knows why
it gets so hot inside and the coal dust is so thick
I cannot think that Hell itself could be much worse
we never stop coughing and there is little sleep
under the deck tarpaulins at night

the reports [from Shiloh] are so various
i know that our army came near being destroyed
and all that saved us was two wooden gunboats
which Providentially were there
our men went down to the river
and then boats opened fire [over them]
and mowed the rebbles down
they winned the day in our favor…

today we fought a rebble boat toe to toe
their vessel only a few boat lengths away
I was on deck as our boat moved terrible slow
trying to get into position against the current
I could see some of their faces as we came about
they looked ragged and near starving
one boy maybe fifteen stared at me for the longest time
and I had a strong feeling that I knew him
I heard last week that cousin Jimmy, uncle David’s oldest
volunteered for a rebble and is serving on a gunboat like mine
I pray to God it wasn’t him. they fired first
I could not move, I just stood there
captain Reynolds had to almost knock me over

our gunboats run the rebel blockade
down to Pope’s army and so transported troops
of his across the river so we had them surrounded.
the enemy ran away at the time for it was at 10 o clock at night
but they were too late as Popes men
were ready to receive them.
they made up a line of battle but then stacked their arms.
their retreat was in such haste
that they left tables set with victuals on but “Alas to Feast”

we fired at the rebble boat for what seemed all eternity and they at us
until their boat lost steering and swung astern of us
we fired for her boiler and she took a direct hit
their boys flew in the air like cotton dolls
the fire was so hot we could not get close
we saved the few who could swim
many were scalded and blinded
when I close my eyes I still see them

as I write this a terrible knowing has come over me
that I will not survive this war and that I have seen my fate today
I cannot burden you or anyone with such thoughts
and will post my regular letter when we pass a northbound boat

now time hastens and i must go
your beloved son wm. Persons

Note: William H. Persons was killed aboard the USS Mound City in the Mississippi river June 19, 1862, along with 94 of his comrades and eight officers. The boat exploded from a direct hit to the boiler.